Porn brings down a Harvard dean

June 4, 1999

Pornography has embroiled two United States universities in controversy over academic freedom and personal privacy.

In one case, the president of Wesleyan University was considering eliminating a women's studies course in which students were required to create pornography.

In the second, the long-time dean of Harvard Divinity School was forced to step down after thousands of pornographic images were discovered on his university-owned computer.

Divinity school dean Ronald F. Thiemann, an ordained Lutheran minister and founder of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, was asked to resign by Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine for "conduct unbecoming a dean" after several people reported seeing pornographic images on his computer.

The witnesses alleged that Dr Thiemann was not particularly secretive about having the pornography, even asking a university technician to transfer thousands of such images to a larger disk drive.

Harvard policy restricts the use of computers to educational purposes and bans material that is "inappropriate, obscene, bigoted or abusive".

Dr Thiemann, who served as dean for 13 years, remains on the faculty, although he has taken a sabbatical and has made no comment on the controversy. His attorney, however, said an employer had no right to intrude on an employee's private life. Other critics, including divinity school students, denounced Harvard's "moral policing".

The university declined to comment on what it called "a confidential personnel matter".

At Wesleyan, president Douglas Bennett has begun a review of a course called "Pornography: writing of prostitutes" after a newspaper disclosed that students in the class were required to produce their own work of pornography as a final project.

Dr Bennett questioned "the appropriateness of the course in the Wesleyan curriculum" in a faculty memo.

For her project, one student videotaped herself wearing black pants and harness-like leather strips and asking to be whipped. Another shot a film of a fellow student masturbating. Yet another submitted photographs of herself having oral sex with her boyfriend.

Students, who held a protest rally in defence of the course, said the university was jettisoning academic freedom out of concern about its public image.

They said the course had been approved through normal channels when it was introduced last year and was not challenged until it received attention from outside the campus. A university spokesman said officials who approved the course did not know all of its details at the time.

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